On his way to a house party on Long Island, Yale architecture student John Moody loses his bearings. When he stops at an anonymous house to ask for directions, he has no idea that it is a house in mourning --- or that the young woman he meets there is destined to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Arlyn Singer is 17, unconventionally beautiful with long red hair and freckles that blanket her luminous skin. The night John Moody arrives, Arlyn is grieving the recent death of her father, waiting for what comes next: "She had convinced herself that her future would arrive on the street where she'd lived her whole life if only she'd wait long enough. If she trusted in fate." Trusting, waiting, expecting --- when John Moody pulls up and asks for directions, he has no idea of the weight of Arlyn's expectations for him, or the extent to which this one chance encounter will shape his future.
That night, though, utterly convinced that John Moody is her destiny, Arlyn seduces the pragmatic young man. And the rest, as they say, is history. Family history, that is, as the two inevitably marry and have a son, Sam, a troublingly morose child whose odd obsessions disturb everyone except Sam's doting mother. As for John, he grows increasingly distant from Arlyn and Sam, throwing himself into his work, convinced that Arlyn, a woman so unlike whom he had always imagined for himself, has somehow bewitched him into a life he was never meant to have. Soon, Arlyn is also convinced that her belief in destiny was wrong, and she finds comfort in the arms of another man.
However, Arlyn's brief taste of true love is not to last. In her mid-20s, having just given birth to her second child, Arlyn develops breast cancer and dies. Her death is particularly hard on Sam, who grows more and more despondent, identifying with the mythical Icarus and fixating on his mother's story about a race of winged men. Descending into drug addiction even as he dreams of ascending into the heights, Sam is soon lost to the rest of his family.
John himself moves forward almost obsessively, remarrying quickly and remaining visibly unmoved by Arlyn's death. In secret, though, John is haunted by visions of his late wife, whose ghostly presence refuses to leave him despite his professed desire for a new life. Why do the dead haunt us? Alice Hoffman asks. Is it that they have unfinished business here, or is it that the living refuse to let them go?
In her typical style, Hoffman mingles magical realism with a three-generational family saga in SKYLIGHT CONFESSIONS. Ghosts appear and disappear, pearls change color depending on their wearer's mood, birds congregate, dishes break and ashes gather --- all without explanation. Hoffman also distills her narrative through evocative images that will haunt the reader long after the novel's close. A central image, of course, is the family's home, an architectural showplace called the Glass Slipper. In Hoffman's skillful hands, the Glass Slipper comes to represent John's failings, the couple's scarred marriage, Sam's frightening isolation, and the ironic fact that, despite living in a house made almost entirely of glass, the Moodys are a family who never really see each other --- until it's too late.
Through the use of spare, almost simplistic language and sentence structure, as well as concrete images, Hoffman constructs a narrative that elevates a family drama filled with tragedy and loss into a saga worthy of Icarus himself. This is a mythic tale that, in the end, offers tentative reconciliation, cautious forgiveness and a belief that people just might be able to fly after all.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
- Publication Date: February 11, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316017876
- ISBN-13: 9780316017879